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What Can We Expect From Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s New Kingmaker?

The Iranians may have been the ones who killed is father – it’s not clear – but he doesn’t like the Americans either and fought them after the 2003 invasion

Amatzia Baram
Amatzia Baram
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A rally for Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad, May 2018.
A rally for Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad, May 2018. Credit: Karim Kadim / AP
Amatzia Baram
Amatzia Baram

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr, the junior Shi’ite cleric and new kingmaker whose party came out on top in the Iraqi elections a few days ago? Since he doesn’t appear on the list of parliamentary candidates, al-Sadr can’t appoint himself prime minister, but his support will be crucial. His choice for prime minister will have great influence on Iraq’s policies.

Simplistic descriptions of al-Sadr portray him as equally anti-American and anti-Iranian. But it’s important to understand the sources of his positions on the big power and the large neighbor to the east; his stance on Iran is particularly surprising for a Shi’ite cleric who has never visited the West but visited and even lived and studied in Iran.

Al-Sadr is the third and least impressive son of Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was killed in his car with his two older sons by submachine gun fire at the entrance to the city of Najaf in 1999. The father left al-Sadr two legacies: deep hostility to the United States, Britain and Israel in the spirit of Saddam Hussein, and a strange competition for hegemony in the Shi’ite and Muslim world with the Shi’ite-Iranian religious establishment and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The father would refer to the United States, Britain and Israel as the “wretched triad.” During Friday sermons, his haranguing of this terrible trio bought Sadeq al-Sadr a measure of protection from the paranoia of the Saddam regime, which he also occasionally criticized, albeit in softer language.

Another way to signal to the regime that Saddam’s enemies were his enemies as well, or at least his rivals, was to declare himself wali amar al-muslamin – in charge of all the Muslims and the only one authorized to declare jihad. Thus he assumed a title that Iran had bestowed on only two people: ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. This chutzpah was as pleasant to Saddam’s ears as an Umm Kulthum love song, but it wasn't relished at all by the Tehran regime, which immediately shut down Sadeq al-Sadr’s offices in Iran and severed ties with him. A few weeks later he was murdered.

It still isn’t clear who assassinated Muqtada’s father. Iran and many Iraqi Shi’ites blamed the Mukhabarat, Saddam’s secret police. The regime vehemently denied the allegations, but no one believed it. Many years later an exiled Iraqi general told this writer that the regime was shocked by the assassination.

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks during a press conference in NajafCredit: Karim Kadim / אי־פי

No love for 'the Persians'

Perhaps. Today, people close to al-Sadr hint that it was the Iranians who killed his father.

Al-Sadr has good political, strategic and cultural reasons to keep his distance from Iran. Opinions in Iraq about Iran are divided: Most clerics need Iranian economic assistance and their standing depends on Iran’s recognition. That’s where their support for Iranian involvement in Iraq comes from. On the other hand, the main religious authority for Iraqi Shi’ites, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as well as most clerics in the city of Najaf, which is sacred to the Shi’ites, strongly oppose the extent of Tehran’s influence.

As for the people themselves, Iraqis serving in militias backed by Iran support Iranian influence, but the broader public is reluctant; the Iraqis are Arabs, while the Iranians are Persians. Although both sides are members of the same religious community, they aren’t fond of each other due to cultural-linguistic differences and negative historical memories.

The term al-furas, the Persians, has no positive connotation in Arabic. These reservations are especiall2003y evident among the Shi’ite tribes of southern Iraq and the millions of tribesmen who have migrated to Baghdad from the rural south since the 1930s, many of whom live in a poor neighborhood in northeast Baghdad. Largely thanks to his father, who worked hard to help the tribesmen and the poor, al-Sadr became the most important leader of these Shi’ites after the American invasion of 2003.

After the U.S. invasion, al-Sadr declared war on the United States and caused many casualties among its forces. Tehran’s aid in arms and money was vital to him and required him to squelch his suspicions and cooperate with the Iranians. But he had stopped trusting them after his father’s death and the Iranians had never trusted him; his father’s legacy and his explosive temper were enough to warn them off.

Al-Sadr despises Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister from 2006 to 2014 and one of the three leading candidates. In 2008, Maliki, with U.S.-British military assistance, eliminated al-Sadr’s control of Basra in the southeast.

A Muqtada al-Sadr poster in Baghdad.Credit: Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP

Al-Sadr is also an opponent of the second candidate, Hadi al-Amiri, the head of extremist pro-Iranian militias. But he’s not an enemy, and Amiri came in second in the elections. A political alliance with him is possible and would protect al-Sadr from Iran’s wrath, but if this happens al-Sadr will have to surrender to his partner’s pro-Iranian line.

Preferring the Saudis and the Gulf states

Far more likely is an alliance with the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, whose relations with al-Sadr have never been smooth. This alliance might seem impossible for al-Sadr, but there have never been crises between them. His support for Abadi is eminently reasonable because like al-Sadr and Sistani, Abadi understands the necessity to balance the relationship with Iran through strategic ties with other forces.

Iran is such a powerful neighbor that even its limited involvement in Iraq is an imminent threat to Iraq’s ability to make independent political decisions. Tehran’s aspiration to turn Iraq into a passage zone for its military en route to Syria and Lebanon is only one example of such a threat.

On the other hand, al-Sadr can’t agree to the long-standing presence of the U.S. military in Iraq, even if Abadi, Sistani and many Sunnis want this to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State. He can ignore the presence of a few American military instructors, and he has never demanded severing relations with the United States or avoiding visits between Baghdad and Washington. In place of American influence and a direct presence in Iraq, al-Sadr will support the influence and presence of U.S. allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This is the only way Iraq will be able to offset Iranian influence.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, left, and Muqtada al-Sadr meeting in Baghdad, May 20, 2018.Credit: Iraqi Prime Minister's Office / AFP

Indeed, al-Sadr and Abadi have already visited the Gulf states. Nor does al-Sadr object to a significant UN presence to help negotiations at home with the Kurds and manage foreign humanitarian aid. Like his partners in the Iraqi patriotic trio, Sistani and Abadi, al-Sadr sees an independent Iraqi identity as the main basis for action.

This was seen in the joint election slate he formed with secular communists and Sunni politicians. Abadi, for his part, won in the most rebellious Sunni province, Al-Anbar, coming far ahead of Sunni candidates. He and al-Sadr are now perceived as the most "Iraqi" statesmen and as not corrupt.

Another possibility, albeit a little theoretical, is of course to return to the broader Shi’ite alliance that includes all four major Shi’ite parties. Even if Abadi leads it, this alliance would be very pro-Iranian, with a symbolic balance of relations with the Gulf states and the United States.

And what about Israel? There’s no chance that any Iraqi government will support ties with Israel in the foreseeable future. But al-Sadr, Sistani and Abadi aren’t happy about Iranian involvement in Syria after the defeat of the Islamic State or about Iran’s expectation that Iraq will grant Iran passage to Syria. All three also support the dismantling of the militias, most of which are pro-Iranian and undermine the state’s monopoly on the use of military force.

Therefore, as far as Israel is concerned, a government led by Abadi with the support of al-Sadr would be a poor man’s joy but still provide some consolation.

Amatzia Baram is a professor emeritus at the University of Haifa.

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